Because Pie

June 12, 2014 • 2:11 pm

Oy, the World Cup is playing hob with my work. If I don’t put the livestream behind me on my laptop, and turn the sound way down, I’ll never get anything done.  Brazil is tied 1-1 with Croatia at half-time.

Let’s talk about pie instead.

I have often extolled the virtues of pie as one of the great glories of American cuisine. No other nation produces pies that resemble those of the United States. Yes, the French have their tartes, some of which are delightful, but give me two thick, flaky and buttery crusts enclosing a sea of blueberries or sour cherries, or a real pecan pie, filled with nuts instead of just a niggardly layer floating on top. Or one of my favorites, the hard-to-find sour cream/raisin pie. Pie is the perfect dessert, even more perfect because it also makes a terrific breakfast. And no other nation has anything like it (don’t waste space in the comments touting your pallid alternatives).

And if you’re a pie fan, and live in or around Lawrence, Kansas, you’re in luck. Reader Marc alerted me to the impending opening (in July) of the Lady Bird Diner at 721 Massachusetts St, Lawrence, Kansas 66044.  The establishement will, so they say, specialize in classic diner fare. And on their Facebook page is one of the most elegiac and mouthwatering odes to pie I’ve ever seen. It’s apparently written by either the owner or a cook, but the love of pies evinced below bodes well for the place. I know there must be some reader in the area, so please visit the diner next month and report back.

In the meantime, here’s their paean to the pie:

Someone recently asked me, Why Pie? Why not diversify into a more elaborate bakery production? The truth is that I could bake 250 cookies in the time it takes me to make one single apple pie. By the time I’ve made the dough, chilled it, rolled it, rested it, peeled and sliced the apples, filled, baked and cooled the pie, I’ve invested about six hours into eight pieces of pie.

So why bother? Pie is never going to be as pretty as its more postured peers Cake or Tart. When roused from its nap on the cooling rack, a piece of pie will likely slump, undignified and oozing its filling while its once perfect crust slips out of alignment in rebellion at having been manhandled by a spatula. Pie is testy, its dough cantankerous (sometimes downright mean) in the hands of anyone who overlooks either the precise chemistry or the matronly patience to yield a pastry neither too flaky nor too firm. “Touch me,” says the dough, “but not too much, and not there, now back away, don’t even look at me!”

And the fillings! Of a million combinations of fruit and custards, each has its own fussy notion about what kind of thickener it wants and at what ratio. Too much and it looks like your pie is wearing too-small pantyhose. Too little and it’s in a muumuu. I’ve spent many years trying to refine my pies’ wardrobes so that they each have their own perfectly fitted Ann Taylor pantsuit. There are good days and bad…

But even on a bad day, even when I’ve plated a piece of pie that I’m not particularly proud of (and a few that I’ve been downright embarrassed of), I can always count on people to taste the effort. I can’t even take credit for what they’re tasting. I’m only one of many pie bakers in their life, perhaps beginning with their own mothers and grandmothers, who spent more time than is reasonable in the kitchen making something that was going to be consumed in under three minutes. Those mamas and grandmas, they could have made instant pudding, and sometimes they did, but those times you’d hear them early in the morning, padding around the kitchen delicately on their tiptoes… and you’d hear the light click-clack of the sifter and then the chunk-chunk of the rolling pin on the counter… soon there would be the smell of warm butter and cinnamon… and then the most perfectly imperfect dessert would emerge from the oven, bubbling fruit through vented pastry, custard cooling and waiting to be topped with cream. It’s the tremendous effort involved in creating something so ordinary that makes pie my favorite dessert to make and to eat.

And so the answer to the question: Why Pie? is: Because Pie.

Now that is food writing! If this person is as good with pie as with words, the Ladybird can’t open too soon.

To whet your appetite, here’s some photos I posted at the local South Side Pie Challenge in November of last year:





Turtle (carmel, nut, and chocolate)!


Hungry yet? And remember, folks. . .




81 thoughts on “Because Pie

  1. It is rhubarb pie season! The rhubarb is up it is healthy, and summer is here,

    And our oven is DEAD.

    I’m going to ask the neighbors to borrow their oven until our kitchen is fixed.

    1. I have to ask my neighbors for rhubarb. They have some growing by their garage. Strawberries are in season. Combine them with rhubarb for the best pie.

      1. One of my life’s little pleasures this time of year is delivering a grocery bag full of rhubarb to a little, old nun I know.

      2. I too get rhubarb from a friend, and strawberries from another. Hard to beat a warm piece of strawberry rhubarb pie with a dab of vanilla ice cream.

      1. Well, you wouldn’t want to make a pie out of sickly rhubarb. Harvest the healthy stalks and throw the rest on the compost pile.

        As for your health, if you’re in good shape, get regular exercise, and eat sensibly, an occasional cookie or slice of pie won’t do any harm.

        I grant that carrot cake is a bit silly. If I want a spice cake, I’ll make one. Carrots don’t add anything worthwhile in my opinion.

    2. My rhubarb bush is HUGE ans I still have a ton of last year’s in the freezer. Just saw a recipe for gingerbread cake w roasted rhubarb on top which I’m going to try soon.

  2. I love pies, both savoury and sweet, and I love making them. Once you know how to turn out a passable crust, you have arrived at home plate:
    “Cut my pie into four pieces, I don’t think I could eat eight.”
    ― Yogi Berra

  3. “Pie is never going to be as pretty as its more postured peers Cake or Tart.”

    I think it’s the French that say: “Ine eats first with the eyes”.

    Which is a good example of thinking that is superficial to the point of being wrong. What about German or English food, much if which is rather ugly but delicious; then there’s fake food used in print ads – looks amazing, but you wouldn’t want to eat it.

    1. “Which is a good example of thinking that is superficial to the point of being wrong”

      That would be fair comment if the expression was “one eats only with the eyes” but it only says one eats first with the eyes. It’s a recognition that great food involves more than the sense of taste. If it looks beautiful, smells wonderful and tastes delicious then that is surely a bonus over and above just tasting great?

      When I think of great tasting German or English food the things that come to mind also look great which is not to say that they have to look fussy or over sophisticated – in my view a good loaf of bread looks delicious and beautiful. The flip side is that bad tasting food generally looks horrible too.

      1. True, food that looks beautiful in addition to being delicious is nice but not necessary. I think letting a food’s appearance affect your judgment can be, and often is, taken too far. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed by poetic menu descriptions and artistic presentations.

        You wouldn’t let the cover design affect your judgment of a Shakespeare play, would you?

        Now, to turn the curmudgeon dial up to eleven, I actually take this issue somewhat seriously because it really rubs me the wrong way when people think they can achieve sophistication or respectability just by buying what somehow becomes agreed upon as “fancy food”. The focus on appearance is just the cherry on the superficial sundae.

        1. Appearance does matter.
          I once made an experimental stir fry using black rice. The colour ran so that I ended up with a very tasty dish that I had to eat in the dark since it looked exactly like the south product of a north facing cow.

        2. I’ll readily agree that any amount of decorating will never make up for poor tasting food but appearance is nevertheless quite legitimately part of the pleasure of good food. On mange d’abord avec les yeux doesn’t mean you put up with poor tasting food if it looks OK.
          When faced with that beautiful crusty loaf you first enjoy its golden appearance and the wonderful aroma then you bite into it and savour the texture – even the sound of the crunch – and the taste; wonderful! Same goes for a pie or a roast chicken or any of the many other wonderful foods that are out there to tempt us.
          As I said food that is well prepared with good quality ingredients will tend to look good as well as tasting good and looking good doesn’t rely on frippery.

        3. You wouldn’t let the cover design affect your judgment of a Shakespeare play, would you?

          I think this is the wrong question. A better question is: would natural selection let you eat any food, regardless of appearance, on the chance that it might turn out to be delicious and nutritious?

          I don’t think so. I’d expect natural selection to endow us with heuristics for estimating the wholesomeness and palatability of foods by sight before we put them in our mouths.

          So appearance is not irrelevant; it’s an integral part of our gustatory experience. Savvy chefs know this, and present their food accordingly.

          1. Ok! Uncle! Uncle!

            I don’t really disagree with any of that. Perhaps I should’ve started out simply saying I think there’s too much emphasis placed on appearance (or exotic-sounding ingredients) in today’s culinary climate.

            To get back to the quote that started it all, give me a delicious but sloppy pie over an elegant but boring (imo) cake any day.

            1. Your point is a good one, too, just different. I hate some of the artsy presentations that come and go in food fashion, and agree that some people are prone to eat something regardless of how it tastes, just because it’s currently popular or decorated up to look like it should be hung on a wall.

              I hated the everything-in-one-stack phase…

  4. I love baking pies. We have meat pie in the fridge right now: ground beef cooked with sweet onions, garlic, and fresh roasted green chiles. This weekend’s fruit pie will be made with fresh plums.

  5. And if one is pitting for said local tart pies one’s own fruits (Grandbambinas Mz Iris Genevieve and Mz Ani Willow named her of Grandma Blue’s … … Chickabooma Cherry Tree), then one may want to be employing for this gargantuan effort what I know to be T.H.E. queen of stoners … … thus: .

    Still — since the cast iron Chop – Rite #16’s earliest manufacture in y1903 — it is available to be had through calculated online auction – sniping ! Cuts stoning one standard pie’s amount (four pitted cupfuls’ worth) down to a mere ¼ – hour’s work !

    Such of Iowa’s labors on the Montmorency variety requires me to so N.O.T. be absent from Chickabooma any time during her last half of June ! Else only the backyard’s birds … … profit !

    And at all of the local potlucks held for whatever event or activity or reason, folks now simply “expect” after her 18 years’ time (so far) with Chickabooma that “Blue is bringing her cherry pies, not ? !”


  6. Pie is the perfect dessert, even more perfect because it also makes a terrific breakfast.

    This brings to mind an essay by Raymond Sokolov published in Natural History in September 1990 titled “The Real Crime at Twin Peals: Are Typical Americans Guilty of Subverting Good Food?” A partial and imperfect scan can be found here (search the page for the phrase “Twin Peaks”), but here’s the money quote:

    This deep-seated cultural difference shows itself most stubbornly at dessert time. Americans want their coffee with the dessert. Europeans take coffee as a separate course, after dessert[…]

    In Europe, the main exception to this segregation of coffee and food comes at breakfast, when the coffee always comes with the croissants and other food[…] It is with this cafe au lait at breakfast that the American and the European traditions merge, the difference being that over here, by European standards, we continue eating breakfast throughout the day, as it were. This is more or less what the cops in Twin Peaks are doing in their life of serial coffee breaks.

    In other words, pie makes a good breakfast because by European standards it is breakfast: sticky pastry consumed with coffee.

    1. Is that essay meant to be tongue-in-cheek? Because I think associating certain foods with certain times of day is an affectation. Maybe to the point of OCD.

      1. It seesm Europeans and their relatives (like this Euro-background Canadian’s parents) are much more sensitive to that than others. For example, years ago I was with friends and families for dim sum, and someone asked one of our Chinese-background associates whether one should hold off on the sponge cake and custard until the end of the meal. “No, why not eat it at any time? We don’t.” Similarly for different meals in the day; many places don’t even *have* more than one (at most) traditionally, for example amongst the Inuit.

    2. It is true that a breakfast of coffee (and tea) and pastries is common in Europe. But the pastries are quite different. At least in Germany where I lived for some time. The stand out difference is the amount of sugar. The typical pastries in Germany, particularly those served for breakfast, are much less sweet than in the US. I remember it being very distinctly noticable at first. Initially everything tasted very odd. Then I became used to it, and have preferred my sweets much less sweet than is typical in the US ever since.

      And thinking of Germany and pastries now has me jonesing for a conditorei fix. There was a great one in downtown Landstuhl back in the ’70s that I frequented. It was amazing how far a few dollars would go back then.

  7. Get me in the right mood and I will make you my Chocolate Brandy Alexander pie. It’s a marshmallow and whipped cream pie flavored with cocoa, chocolate, brandy, and creme de cacao.

  8. If you’re ever down in Springfield, the Magic Kitchen north of the fairgrounds may still be open, and if it is, you’ve got culinary magic: Thai and pie. Seriously well-spiced Thai food followed by fresh-baked pie of many varieties, always what’s in season. It’s also a BYOB place.

      1. It’s Springfield, Illinois. I know this because The Magic Kitchen was a favorite of mine when I was a teenager there. It’s been 30 years, but I still have cravings for their coconut creme pies.

  9. The English do pies, but not as obsessively as Americans. My English mother taught me how to make pastry, but I am cursed with warm hands which made my pastry tough until I started using the food processor to cut in the butter. Now it’s not a problem.

    I’d like to try the sour cream and raisin pie you mention Jerry, as I’ve never had one of those. The net has a couple of variations, most particularly one with meringue on top and another without. It seems to depend on whether the whites go into the custard or not. Which do you prefer?

    1. When I lived in the UK, pie was no big deal. Then I lived in the US – and good cherry pie is a thing of beauty, oh yes. It’s definitely an American thing.

  10. pie crust, said slowly . . . .

    Quite erotic to the ear.

    But, how about cobbler, with its long, rectangular bikini strips?

    Is cobbler to pie as pie is to cake?

    1. Which makes my remark that one of my favourite pies is banana cream pie just sound salacious.

  11. The other evening, I noticed a little “pie-shop” getting ready to open just a few blocks away; I don’t even LIKE pie, but now you’ve got me wanting to go check it out!

  12. I’ve always been partial to birthday pie.
    My grandmother made concord grape pie for thanksgiving, a serious sugar rush. She and her pies are missed.

  13. Jerry, you may have heard of RAGBRAI, the great 400 mile bike ride across the state of Iowa and wondered why. Well, it’s for the homemade pies, slices of which are available every couple of miles. Yes, it is possible to ride hundreds of miles and still gain weight.

  14. Very brave of you to use the word “niggardly” in public…because people are stupid. It’s almost unbelievable that people have actually gotten in real trouble for saying it in the recent past. On the bright side, one misguided student’s ridiculous overreaction to hearing a professor say it in class had the happy result of convincing the school that they should abandon their “speech code.”

  15. “Pie is the perfect dessert, even more perfect because it also makes a terrific breakfast.”,

    Soooo true!

    Pie is just about my favorite breakfast.
    Pumpkin (my mom’s) being tops, followed by a great Apple Pie.

    Unfortunately, having a kid with a peanut allergy severely limits the baked goods that can enter our house these days. It’s killer looking at pie shops and not being able to take any of them home 🙁

    (And I stink at baking, unfortunately).

  16. I can’t believe there hasn’t been a peach pie testimonial. It is my favorite and my wife makes it for me on my birthday. I like my birthday pie. Blow out the candles and dig in.
    Oh, vanilla ice cream on top of course.

  17. The first time I made a pecan pie, I misread the handwritten instructions, and instead of 1 T of butter, I added 1 lb. A bit runny, but sublime.

    1. Holy cow! (pun intended even though rather lame).

      Even without adding that much extra “liquid” it is kind of tricky getting pecan pie to set to the proper consistancy. At least for me.

  18. I confess that I was merely skim-reading this post and misread the first sentence of the fourth paragraph as “…live in or around Lawrence Krauss…” which caused a bit of a double-take on my part.

  19. Pie is the perfect dessert, even more perfect because it also makes a terrific breakfast.

    And it makes a pretty good between pie snack.
    If I recall correctly the USDA food pyramid has the firmer pies on the bottom so they don’t get squashed.

  20. Not to forget the perfect pie chart

  21. Too much surface area for the pecans in the pecan pie shown above. The pecans need to be stochastically integreated into the pie medium. Summertime = good pies (at least in America). My belly is ready.

  22. One of the qualities of a great pie is, I believe, that of any good cooking: balance.

    I’ve always been appalled by the type of advertising and food gamesmanship that go in in trying to get people to buy certain food products, like Raisin bran advertising “now with Much More Raisins!” Or cookies that advertise “Now our cookies are STUFFED with MORE Chocolate chips!”

    As if making better tasting food is finding the sweetest part and just adding MORE of it.
    No. What happens is you just unbalance the flavors in the food. I don’t want a chocolate chip cookie that is more chocolate chips than batter. I’d eat a candy bar instead. I want the right balance of batter to chocolate chips, without the chocolate just overwhelming the batter.

    Same with pies. Crude pie baking works along the same lines: “the sweet stuff in the middle is what people like so let’s give them MORE.” So often enough, even in “high end” baking shops, I’ll see pies that are 1/2 tall, pumped with mostly filling.
    Then you lose the balance of the crust to the filling, and it becomes far overwhelmed by the sweet filling, and half of the eating is just “filling” and doesn’t even taste like “pie.”

    That’s one reason I am crazy about my mom’s pumpkin pie. In fact, everyone who tastes it is instantly addicted and looks forward to thanksgiving to taste it again. She uses a bunch of off-the-shelf ingredients for the most part, but she has the balance of the pumpkin filling to the pie cruse absolutely perfect. The meld in one glorious whole.
    Almost every other pumpkin pie I try in stores goes with the “more filling the better” approach, and it feels like I’m eating a pile high of pumpkin mouse, not a pie.

    End of pie rant.


  23. Roy Blount wrote this Song to Pie (from his book One Fell Soup):

    Oh my,
    Nothing tastes sweet,
    Wet, salty and dry
    All at once so well as pie.

    Apple and pumpkin and mince and black bottom,
    I’ll come to your place every day if you’ve got ‘em.

  24. I love pie! I used to make a lot of pies, but have gotten away from it after the kids left home. Shortening makes the most awesome pie crust, flaky, golden and delicious, but the downside is now we know about trans-fats.

    I find shortening far superior in taste and dough handling over butter in crusts. Maybe that is just because I grew up learning to make pie crust with shortening.
    One of my grandmothers used lard to make her crust for her luscious pies. My other grandmother used shortening, and she also made us kids cinnamon pies with her leftover crust scraps – my favorite thing ever! I also made cinnamon pies for my kids and I still make myself one when I do make pies for holidays! Yummy!

    1. (Sung in Janis’ voice)

      ‘Oh lard, it’s the best thing
      to make apple pie.
      Some people use Crisco
      but I can’t think why.
      I’m true to my taste buds
      so that’s why I buy
      Pure la-a-ard
      It’s the best thing
      to make apple pie

  25. If you’re ever in the Sevierville, TN area do check out the “Smoky Mountain Cheesecake Cafe”. I know the post is about pies but I wanted to give these guys a mention because their cheesecake is *delicious* and they truly care about making good vittles. Their specialty is authentic Cuban sandwiches for which they have the bread brought up from Miami. They’ve been well reviewed on Trip Advisor, have a FB page, and a web presence, here:

  26. I grew up in the region of Pennsylvania where you could find shoo fly pie. Man do I miss it. I’ve tried making it myself a few times, but my pies never turn out as good as what you can buy at the store (I always buy one whenever I’m up that way).

    I miss custard pie, too. I know that’s not as regional as shoo fly pie, but I can’t find it down here in my town in Texas.

    They do have good pecan pie here, at least, but that doesn’t make up for missing those two essential pies.

      1. A shoo fly pie has a sweet, gooey molasses based filling topped with crumbs (at least, the type I’ve always eaten – apparently there are dry bottom varieties as well). The ‘shoo fly’ supposedly comes from having to shoo the flies away from the pie because it was so sweet. I don’t think it has any relation to the ‘shoo fly don’t bother me’ song.

  27. The Brits do have a long tradition of various types of pie. Anybody across the pond care to comment on the use of suet pastry in the Americas? Curious to know if its popular over there

    1. Stuff with suet:

      Christmas pudding
      Jamaican patty
      Rag Pudding
      Spotted dick
      Steak and kidney pudding
      Sussex Pond Pudding
      Suet Crust Pastry
      Windsor pudding
      Clootie Dumpling (Scottish)

  28. A writer in an Ohio Amish country travel magazine claimed to have four favorite kinds of pie: one crust, two crust, hot or cold. A venerable local restaurant frequented by the Amish in Berlin OH typically has >20 kinds of pie daily. Arrive about 9AM and watch them cut and plate the pies.

  29. This is a “Must Transgress” post, so I shall… There are many excellent varieties of pies to be found in the Old World,Jerry, at least as good as those of the New,but I shall concur that your sweet varieties are second to none (and there is a lot of competition…)

  30. The ‘The Book of Household Management’ by Mrs Beeton 1861 is one of the first commercial collections of recipes and coincides with the increasing use and availability of imported cane sugar into Europe. There seems to have been a boom in the cooking of sweet stuff all over Europe. It seems that honey was used previously: see the Greek and Turkish honey cake/pies. The Brits and Irish seem to favour closed pies compared to the French who have their open quiches: my theory is that the top crust is a protection against the rain.

  31. There are also the great variety of Cornish pasties which are essentially a disk of pastry folded around the filling (like a big ravioli) and are associated with the Cornish miners who used this type of pie as a convenient “package” for bringing food to work. Some pasties have savoury at one side and sweet the other so that it forms a complete two course meal. You can eat them with dirty hands holding the ‘wings’ which are thrown away when you finish.
    Italians have a variant called Panzerotto which is originally from Southern Italy (apparently common now in the States) and has a very wide range of fillings and local specialisations.
    The Greeks have their cheese pie (tiropita) which is, in my experience, at its stunning best eaten fresh with ice cold water under a blazing sunrise on one of the Greek islands.

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